Literary Daybook, June 21

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published June 21, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On June 21, 1858, Randolph Henry Ash drafts his first letter to Christabel LaMotte.
-- "Possession" (1990)
by A.S. Byatt

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1982, Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" was published by Norton and Company in "the only complete edition from the original manuscript." All previous editions incorporated all or most of the cuts and changes that had been made to Crane's manuscript for its original publication in 1895. These changes had been made by Crane, but many now agree that they were coerced by an editor with an eye to the marketplace, and were so significant as to distort and muddy the story Crane wrote and the theme he intended. The original edition, writes the Norton editor, remade Crane's hero into "a youth who finds courage and self-possesion, instead of one who, if he changes at all, becomes at the end even more egotistical and obtuse than he is at the beginning."

Within four months of the book's original publication it was a bestseller. Critics marveled at writing that turned battle scenes into a "photographic revelation," and Civil War veterans wrote letters saying they remembered fighting here or there alongside the author. Crane was 24, and the biggest battles he had fought were those of a teenager in full revolt against his parents. Crane's mother was a lecturer on temperance and a writer for the Heathen Women's Friend; his father was an evangelist. On his parents' list of forbiddens were most of Stephen's passions: alcohol, tobacco, sex, baseball and novels. One of Reverend Crane's tracts drew a battle line on books that did not show room for retreat or surrender: "for the guidance of all, young and old, learned and unlearned, total abstinence from novel reading, henceforth and forever." Crane's early book of poetry is called "The Black Riders," drawn from emotions experienced growing up in Asbury Park, N.J., the place from which Springsteen was later born to run.

Reverend Crane died early and Mrs. Crane could only note that her son, "like the wind in Scripture, bloweth where he listeth." "He could never be told, tamed, trained or trammeled," said a classmate at one of the two universities where Crane never went to class. Instead he wrote, and got so poor from it that when he went to Hamlin Garland for his advice on "The Red Badge of Courage," he could only take the first half of the manuscript because the second half was in hock to his typist. Garland thought Crane's story so good that he gave him $15 for the typist; he thought Crane so underfed that he made him a steak dinner. That the editors at Appleton, the only publishers that seemed to want his book, insisted on changes that would make it more upbeat and palatable to the public must have struck Crane as a deal he could live with.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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